Ten years ago I lived in Mumbai, a name still newly minted for a city I shall always cherish by its Portuguese sobriquet. I lived in Mahim, close to the eponymous creek where the many mouths of the sea osculated with the many rectums of the land. My sparsely furnished rented apartment was equidistant from the pealing bells of Sitladevi temple, St Michael's Church -- ever-brimful of prayer, and the Dargah of Baba Makhdoom Ali Mahimi, which came into its own during the annual Urs. It was only the pull of faith that redeemed Mahim from being just another of Mumbai's teeming trash bins. Any way that wretched sea breeze blew, it swept blessings into your face.
I shared my tenement with a colleague, a Delhi-bred Tamil Brahmin whose staunch vegetarianism Bombay's gastronomic temptations in flesh and gristle had not succeeded in quelling. Our mostly Muslim neighbors assumed that I too was of similar dietary disposition. Ergo, I was offered nothing but smiles and adaabs on Eid.
Except early one Eid morning, when my friend opened the door to be greeted by a smiling preteen in powder-blue salwar-kameez and matching chiffon dupatta, jasmines braided into her oiled hair. She pressed a packet of something soft and warm into his hands. "Eid Mubarak," she chimed. He accepted her gift, returned her smile (and her greeting), and shut the door. Opening the packet, he wrinkled his nose and gagged.
It was a kilogram of mutton, fresh from slaughter.
Therein lay a tale that this page from my diary might tell:
Two nights ago I was welcomed home by three goats tethered to a smog-choked tree at the landing of the stairs leading up to our second-floor apartment.
Goats are comic — I have always taken kindly to their sage, half-witted expression and sad eyes that remind me of Tiger Pataudi. And voices no alarm clock can beat, except that they go off at the wrong hour.
One of the goats — a white, shaggy fellow — walked up to me to exercise his curiosity. He sniffed me up as a dog would. I did what I usually do in such moments of unresolved idiocy — I smiled and patted his head.
Back from work early next morning, I found the landing resembled an impressive Hollywood set of the Nativity scene. There were 38 goats in all — I didn't count but the watchman confirmed. Goats as far as my eye could see. Some of them nearly as big as the small cows one finds in the Dakshina Kannada region, with long, droopy ears and querulous voices.
Most perceptibly, I felt I was let into one of history's best-kept olfactory secrets — the kind of smell that must have lingered at the Nativity. It's the smell of hair, essentially — matted with everything organic, but mostly goat urine, dung and perhaps sweat and saliva. Almost pleasant in small, faint quantities, but a strong whiff can make you retch. Thirty-eight goats, apparently, wasn't all that bad — I did not throw up as the heavy pall crept in through my window that night.
Thirty-eight is plenty of goats — a good-sized quorum for a convention on some serious goat affairs, if only they had all come together of their volition. Perhaps some of them, unwise to our ways, felt they were in for something important. Because in the morning the children who lived near the landing stroked them, petted them and rode on their backs. They fed them lavishly on soaked grain and leaves from a huge bough some smart dude had sawn off the neighbor's mango tree — I suppose they told him it had fallen in a storm, though we had not enjoyed one here since the monsoon departed in early September. Or maybe they did this every year and it didn't get his … er, goat.
Last night they were unusually vocal. One of them, a stout brown fellow the size of a mastiff, seemed to suffer a coughing fit. The others began a rhubarb-rhubarb in goat argot — sniffles, sighs, bleats and a sort of braying. I didn't understand a thing — dog psychology is my forte and the ungulate lexicon is beyond me.
When the din became unbearable I went downstairs. There was goat litter of every conceivable description on the drive. Baskets of grass and hay lay scattered like hors d'oeuvres at a damp-squib cocktail party. The place was redolent of a faraway, pastoral stench that reminded me of a gale tugging at a shepherd's robes. It was hard to walk out of the building without negotiating a goat or three.
"Don't worry, saab," the watchman assured me. "Kal sab kat jayega." He drew a finger across his throat. "They'll be gone in the morning."
I flung a half-deadpan, half-dirty look at him and returned to my refuge.
Cut to this morning. And take 'cut' very literally. I rose at eight to the sound of voices — many busy voices — and the murmur of heightened activity.
I peered out the window to see men — most in mosque-fresh white kurta-pajamas — watching an army of butchers go about their savage business with Rolex precision. Children looked on as the burly men pinned the goats down, deftly slit their throats and bled them to death the halal way.
Nearby, other goats watched in silence. Some pawed the concrete. Some shuddered. Most preferred to look the other way. Except one little fellow — he bleated in panic and they were forced to lead him away. The children laughed and clapped their hands. The butchers smiled fondly at their mirth.
Some of the goats were in advanced stages of slaughter. One's coat had been shorn clean of its body — it was now a supple, sparkling mass of pink skin-flesh wrapped in membrane. Was that the big white one with the twisty horns? Or the rotund brown fellow with one eye that had playfully butted my knee the previous morning?
A runnel of blood snaked downhill and collected in a glistening pool near the wall; someone tried to wash it away with water from a steel bucket.
Three goats had been spared the slaughter. Nearby, the butchers in their blood-spattered vests, their long beards and kind smiles, were hurrying through their job — perhaps they were needed elsewhere for a similar assignment.
Large steel utensils sat nearby, piled high with uniform bits of flesh. The last whole carcass was snipped up and assimilated into its components. Around it, in neatly ordered heaps, were livers, gizzards, hooves, brains, plates of bone, skulls with the flesh on…
And the constant clatter of hacking — busy and hurried, unlike the monotonous metronomic beat of stonecutters. The flat, keen blades fell rhythmically on bits of stubborn bone — they yielded easily.
One butcher pulled a freshly skinned head towards him and lopped away at its crown, expertly flicking open the top of the head as if it were a coconut. He then slid a narrow blade into the cavity, tugged gently and with his fingers scooped out the brain — intact. He flung it like a fruit towards a pile of 20 others. Long way to go.
One the three lucky goats, a large white female festooned with strands of gilt, nibbled at a butcher's groin, while his colleagues quaked with lewd laughter. Perks of the job.
Last night's smell didn't bother me anymore. Not so much as the smell of the morning after — the heavy, thick, metallic scent of blood. I shut the window and peered through the glass. In four hours the place was cleaner than a whistle. Only the expectant crows lingered, disappointed, watching the children play ring-a-ring-of-roses.
I denied myself brunch. I felt like washing in really strong disinfectant, one that would scrub the grime off my soul. I dreaded the thought of walking down those stairs. Maybe I'll call in sick, I thought…
I lay on my back and stared at the ceiling, torn between the urge to retch and exercise my right to demand my rightful portion of biriyani as Mr Salim Khan's tenant. As I ran my fingers over my head and face I was trembling. I felt my upper arm, its flaccid biceps, my firm shoulders, the mound of my calves, the firm skin of my foot…
Imagine all this piled on a plate for someone to eat.
After all of that trauma, I expected to go off meat for the rest of my life. But a true carnivore dies harder than an unfortunate goat. That evening, our upstairs neighbor sent us an aluminum pot full of biriyani.
Such selfish, gluttonous joy to celebrate Eid with a vegetarian roomie!